History nerd alert: On the danger of generalization

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Yesterday, Catholic News Service reported on an event from the Catholic Media Conference where a group of panelists spoke about religious liberty and contraception. Setting aside opinions about the Affordable Care Act and tabling whether you do or don’t believe that religious liberty in America is currently being threatened, there were a few troubling parts of this article for me; namely, the sweeping generalizations made that went reported as unchallenged fact.

The paragraph of most concern to me (though I found several parts problematic) cited comments made by Michael Scaperlanda, associate dean for academics at the University of Oklahoma College of Law:

Scaperlanda gave a historical perspective on religious liberty as well as other contemporary examples of government infringement on religious liberty. He noted that over the centuries, “God is and has always been a problem” for governments. “Power hates a rival,” he added.

The article moves right on from there to discuss comments made by another panelist. Now, I know that I’ve got a lot of history pride, but here are some problems I had with both this reporting and substance:

1) The massive generalization of claiming something to be true “over the centuries.” Though it’s unclear if this is something that Scaperlanda actually said or if it was just reported this way, I couldn’t help but think of my high school U.S. History teacher, who, when preparing us for our exams, pleaded with us to never, ever start an essay with “Throughout the history of the United States…” This strategy makes sense even when you think about how different the year 2012 is from 1912 (women couldn’t even vote in the U.S.!), or 1912 from 1812. To claim things are consistent over centuries is not always inaccurate, but certainly merits closer examination of facts.

2) The extreme factual inaccuracy that “God is and has always been a problem” for governments. (Always is always a dangerous word to use when talking about history, as I was hinting at above!) The second that I read this sentence, I took to the Google (as any good Millennial would do) and typed “divine right of kings” into the search bar. Though every history teacher and professor I’ve ever had is collectively cringing at me doing this, I’m going to link to this Wikipedia article to summarize how God was not a problem for the monarchs of Europe. For an example closer to home, in the 19th century Manifest Destiny became a convenient justification for expanding the boundaries of the U.S.—rather than being a thorn in the side or a rival, God was “on our side” to help us grow our power.

3) The lack of examples cited to back up claims. Again, Scaperlanda may have mentioned some, but the reporting does not list any details Scaperlanda may have given to support his claim of God as a problem for governments. I’d be willing to entertain an argument if he provided examples of how he saw this to be true. And, from there, we would have an easy starting point for discussion.

I know I’ve been guilty of generalization, but in our sound-byte culture, it is dangerous—whether you are an academic, a politician, a bishop, or an ordinary citizen—to make unsupported claims, which get quickly reported, disseminated, and repeated. It’s easy enough for anyone to stand up and proclaim “Religious liberty is under attack in America” or “Traditional marriage is between one man and one woman.” Repeated often enough, it can end up seeming to be the truth. It’s a much more difficult task to ask questions about why or how something came to be.

When we argue from generalizations and ideologies, and we end up just shouting things we believe to be true at each other.

What good is that for anyone?